My trailblazing mom directed TV shows in the 1950s, until she was blacklisted

My trailblazing mom directed TV shows in the 1950s, until she was blacklisted

April 5, 2021

Oscar has spoken and two women have been nominated for directing — a first in the 93-year history of the Academy Awards. Yep, it’s been a long time coming. Before this year, only five female filmmakers had been recognized for their work as what’s essentially the top dog on a film set.

My mom, although she worked in TV, not film, was a top dog — nearly 70 years ago. And, a bit like the Oscars, I’m just now giving that fact its due.

I had a complicated relationship with Mom, to put it mildly. We didn’t always get along, and Dad was always my North Star. I know I’m not unique. But recently I have begun to rethink all that, thanks in part to a slew of other nominations that came out before Hollywood took its turn: our new, diverse White House administration, which inspired me to revisit my mom’s pioneering place in the tumultuous early days of television.

A man’s world

In 1952, Mom, aka Daphne Elliott, was not only one of a handful of women TV directors, as both my entertainer parents told us, but, at the age of only 28, she was television’s youngest woman director, according to CUE, the groundbreaking New York City entertainment magazine. 

She was among the directors helming one of her era’s top-rated hits, NBC’s “The Big Story,” and directed two other prime-time dramas — “Treasury Men in Action” and “Police Story.” Mom also wrote, produced and assistant produced such popular shows as a summer edition of “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” a revue that had featured Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello and the like.

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More context: In 1950, less than one-fifth of American homes even contained a TV. Full-scale commercial TV broadcasting had taken flight only a few years before my mom took the job of top dog on a set populated mostly by men, and a few seasons before that she had been powering through fragile ingenue roles as an aspiring actress in summer stock. 

Furthermore, overall, the share of women in the workforce in 1950 was only 34% (compared with 60% in 2000). Women mostly worked — at low wages — as teachers, secretaries and domestic helpers — and popular culture prized an M.R.S. degree, not an upper-management position telling men what to do and how to do it.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say that men aren’t crazy about taking orders from women,” Mom told CUE, who referred to her as “a girl,” in 1952, “and I knew that was a hurdle I’d have to leap.” She spoke of being “scared silly” before her first meeting with “Treasury Men in Action’s” male technical director, a veteran craftsman: “I was frightened about what he might think of an upstart like me coming into the picture. For days I wondered how to conduct myself. … Should I be gay, charming, wistful, humble? I just didn’t know. I finally decided to be as businesslike as I knew how. It worked out fine.”

You go, girl.

Daphne Elliott, third from left, on set in the 1950s. (Photo: Family handout)

My mother likewise facilely overcame sexist perceptions on “Treasury Men.” The crime show’s advertisers feared that, under her hand, it might “take on a feminine flavor.” While no fan of gratuitous violence, Mom recalled that in her first script, “one character shot himself and another got beat up three times on camera. When it was over, the agency’s only complaint was that my treatment was too brutal.”

Cold War casualties 

No, Daphne Elliott wasn’t an Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller or Ida Lupino, a prominent female filmmaker of the 1950s who directed over the decades. And she’d probably be a bit embarrassed by my writing this or even mentioning those greats in the same breath. She didn’t also write and edit the shows she directed, like Chloé Zhao.

But my mom’s directing career was artificially cut short, I believe. Mom was blacklisted, callously fired from “Treasury Men,” along with dozens of other actors, writers, musicians and fellow directors, due to allegations of subversion, as Shannan Clark writes in his new book, “The Making of the American Creative Class.”

I was positively stunned to come across my mother’s name in Clark’s book. Stunned, disgusted and grateful. Disgusted, of course, to read again of this pernicious, prolonged, vile period of American Cold War history. Stunned and grateful because I had heard so much about this growing up — it loomed as something practically mystical in my family. But Mom didn’t like to talk about it, and confirmation in black and white of the anguish and terror she had to have endured was validating, if heartbreaking and infuriating.

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In fact, Mom refused to confirm to me that she was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. But I believe she most certainly was, for reasons so beautifully articulated by our close family friend, the late renowned stage and television director David Pressman. 

The Communist Party that Pressman joined in the 1930s appealed to many in the arts, Variety reported he said, because it supported such ” ‘radical ideas’ back then as integration, civil rights and socialized medicine.” Indeed, even my earliest childhood memories of American communists and sympathizers had them as searching for a more just and compassionate world. 

Harbingers of progress

No, I can’t be sure that the Red Scare was the sole cause of Mom’s truncated directing career. I never did question her thoroughly about it, regretfully. And she did go on to write and produce for TV after her firing. She also had her first child, my brother, two years later. Maybe family pulled her away, as well. She also struggled long, hard and ultimately with success, in my view, with depression and other mental health issues.

But I’m convinced that it would have been much, much harder for her to go back to directing, a very visible, very difficult job, especially at age 28 and especially during the highly conservative ’50s (birth decade of National Review and Ozzie and Harriet), than say, my father.

Charles S. Dubin was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee after his own venomous blacklisting. Dad’s career was further along when he was initially attacked, and he went on to great success. He helmed more episodes of TV’s “M*A*S*H” than any other director and won an Emmy for another show.

Another thing I’m sure of: I’m thankful to be looking at Mom’s accomplishments with renewed perspective. Good thing some of us can finally grow up and see the gifts right in front of us. 

Born on April 5, in 1924, my mom loved to garden. She loved to see her incipient crocus signal that winter was ending, poking its resiliency through the last remaining, fragile snow at our New York home. She adored lilacs, my forever-favorite flower, and wisteria, too. May I always embrace those harbingers of spring as reminders of a fresh way of seeing things — of progress — as I stand in admiration of the pioneering work she did to get to where we are today. 

Zan Dubin-Scott, a former staff writer/reporter with the Los Angeles Times, runs ZDS Communications, a public relations agency. Follow her on Twitter: @zandubinscott

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